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Homeland Security office OKs efforts to monitor threats via social media

A little-known privacy office in the Department of Homeland Security has given its stamp of approval to an ongoing initiative aimed at monitoring social media sites for emerging threats.

Congress created the department’s privacy office in 2003 to review major initiatives and databases and make certain those initiatives respected the rights of Americans, while also enabling homeland security officials to better collect and share information about possible terrorism and criminal suspects.

The department first began experimenting with the possibility of social media monitoring in 2010 with pilot programs that targeted public reactions to the earthquake in Haiti, the Winter Olympics in Vancouver and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The privacy office has since conducted compliance reviews every six months, with the most recent assessment [PDF] published last week.

Although the pilot programs were narrow in focus, privacy and civil liberties groups have long worried that the department’s monitoring would expand to all online speech with no reasonable suspicion that a crime had occurred.

As Americans turn to social media sites like Twitter and Facebook to communicate with one another, intelligence officials are looking for ways to harness that ocean of data and convert it into actionable information.

Filed under: Public Safety, Daily Report

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FTC: Apps aimed at kids raise privacy concerns

The number of mobile apps marketed to kids is growing at a rapid pace, yet a recent report by the Federal Trade Commission raises new concerns about child privacy and the lack of disclosure about the personal data being collected.

The FTC reviewed the promotional pages for 400 apps aimed at kids and found that fewer than 2 percent disclosed what personal information is collected or how it is used. The commission noted that smartphone apps can collect personal data from the device automatically, including the user’s location, phone number, list of contacts and call logs, and share that with others.

The review [PDF] did not delve into what information apps actually are collecting from children, but the FTC is looking into that and plans to release its findings within the next four months.

 

“Parents should be able to learn before they download apps what information will be used and how it’s shared,” said Patricia Poss, one of the FTC report authors.

As part of its review, the FTC fined a California company on accusations of violating the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, which outlaws the collection of data from children younger than 13 without parental approval. By law, companies must explain what information is being collected and how it is used. The California company, W3 Innovations LLC, was fined $50,000 for collecting e-mail addresses and other information from tens of thousands of children without parental consent. It was the FTC’s first mobile app case.

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11 Calif. lawmakers support contentious cybersecurity bill

Eleven California lawmakers are among the more than 100 co-sponsors of an increasingly controversial cybersecurity bill that would make it easier for private companies to swap information with the federal government on threats against computer systems.

Hackers and thieves, say the bill's supporters, threaten to undermine national security and the economy by targeting business secrets and financial information.

One of the co-sponsors – Democratic Rep. Anna Eshoo of Menlo Park – represents a district containing parts of Silicon Valley, home to the tech industry and its years of skepticism toward Washington meddling in Internet growth and digital innovation.

Critics worry that the bill’s language could put the National Security Agency or the Department of Defense’s Cyber Command in the position of compiling sensitive personal information belonging to Americans that flows between the federal government and the private sector.

 

There are no meaningful restrictions for how the government can use data that consumers intended to give only to a private company, says the Center for Democracy & Technology in San Francisco. Any restrictions on the data that might exist are left up to businesses, and the information also could be used for government surveillance purposes, adds the group.

Filed under: Public Safety, Daily Report

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CSU police official calls for colleges to monitor students online

Billions of details about students’ lives pulse through university computer servers every day. The data is in e-mails from school accounts, in online purchases and Facebook updates made on school Internet connections.

This flood of data might contain clues to future violent threats at colleges. A campus police lieutenant at CSU Channel Islands is arguing that university officials need to use that information to monitor their student bodies.

Lt. Michael Morris took his case public this week with an editorial published in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

“This information, which may reside in the university's IT system, would allow the campus to strategize a swift and effective intervention, and take steps to prevent violent behavior from ever occurring,” he wrote.

No such surveillance is under way at California universities or elsewhere in the U.S. However, it is possible to gather and analyze the data, according to Michael Berman, chief information officer for CSU Channel Islands.

 

“Technologically, yes, but it would violate our current policies,” Berman said.

Those policies [PDF] stipulate that the university doesn’t “generally monitor or restrict” content on its systems and networks. The exception to that rule is if someone is committing a crime or violating CSU policies.

“But that would not be a general monitoring where we’d be looking at what people do in their ordinary course of business,” Berman said.

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